Friday, 4 August 2017

Intermission - Imparting Automotive Passion that Propels Economic Activity (Part 2) - Jay Leno...the Auto-Patron




Though obviously well known in the US as host of the legendary 'Tonight Show' on NBC, James Douglas Muir Leno has become almost legendary in his own life-time amongst car enthusiasts because of his personal and monetary devotion to vehicles 'en mass'.

No matter in which country a 'petrol-head' resides, thanks to the reach of the internet many millions are now wholly aware of the efforts of this man to both concentrate the historical 'intellectual wealth' of the auto-industry, and also participate in the continued evolution of this broad sphere; done so via the youtube and latterly TV based 'Jay Leno's Garage'.

Born of Italian-Scottish parentage in New Rochelle, NY State, (its name derived from French New World settlers) his formative years were spent in Andover, Massachusetts, amongst the 'New England' states (with numerous English derived place-names).

So paradoxically whilst although obviously 'All-American', it was inevitable that growing-up with the diverse and manifold 'old countries' influences of the Atlantic North East undoubtedly influenced Leno's understanding and outlook from a young age; providing historical and cultural breadth, leading to 'avenues of appreciation' that would be latterly become exemplified in his immense car collection.

Moreover, 'New England' itself provided a rich seam of multi-layered contextual interest, since it was the heartland of America's own industrial revolution from the 1770s onward This involved many production ('manufactory') centres, from textiles to the beginnings of precision manufacturing in armaments - which of course together with the systemisation of the butchery trade directly influenced Henry Ford's business model for the Model T in Detroit (another town with French origins).

Interestingly, because of the historical social dynamic 'New England' had always been a divergent mix; of the 'first-class', 'third-class' and incoming 'second class'. The long-rooted wealthy old-families maintained a virtual stranglehold of the 'high-brow' in land-ownership, education, politics, finance, industry and trade, etc, thus entrenched as the 'first-class' elite. Whilst the majority were effectively agriculturally and factory tied 'third class' whites, who had left Ireland and Scotland during the famine and earlier land clearances.

However, the regional demographic shifted when second generation, American born Irish, Italians and Poles moved out from New York and into New England in search of a better life, new opportunities and to form their own futures as entrepreneurs.

Leno's father was one of those men who moved-out of a grimy, heavily tribal and corrupt/criminal New York for the ideal of open air, broader horizons and golden summers for a future family. For much of the early to mid 20th century, it was this 'imported dynamism' of the entrepreneurial and hard-working 'immigrant classes' that helped propel New England's economy.

Although the region experienced the beginnings of industrial decline after WW2 in lower value sectors, thus seeing the decline of the working and lower middle classes, at least the counter-force existence of 'MIT' meant that the region enjoyed a concerted effort to create new high-level industries and re-generate mid-level sectors, aswell as providing academically led 'thought leadership' for the broader USA.

This broad context of mixed peoples, historic internationalism, industrial-commercial development and a sense of 'futurism' appears to have “cast the die” for the substrate of Jay Leno's interests and character, beneath the comedic surface.

Very telling is his story about his father, a man who when he had the opportunity to buy a new car took-up the American Dream by purchasing one of the biggest cars ever made: an early 1970s Chevy Station Wagon; since size was considered a determinate of success. So although Jay Leno himself is third generation American-Italian, and thus typically more 'fine-tuned' to societal nuance, this perfectly scripted sociological episode of family history, even at the time, was undoubtedly recognised for what it was, even before his father's open and honest explanation about self-rewarding symbolism.

Hence Leno's fascination for all divergent facets of the world about him, and specifically his broad social and inter-personal observations and analysis, which provided the basis and material for his later stand-up comedy and talk-show careers.

And similarly appreciation for the wide spectrum of cultural variety and nuance importantly has also shaped his appreciation for the world's widely diverse, eclectic automotive history, its own origins in very different socio-economic cultures and the aligned resultant technical solutions and outcomes.

[NB Many examples exist but two such brand-specific examples being:

1. the post-war governmental policies and corporate ambitions of France, illustrated by with the world of difference between Citroen's rudimentary Deux Cheveaux of 1948 and its highly sophisticated DS19 of 1955.
2. the American Nash model fitted-out for travelling salemen (to avoid hotel/motel costs) with fully reclining 'bed' seating, and provision of the first true in-car air-conditioning unit created by its Kelvinator home and business refrigeration division].

But where and how did his fascination begin?

It seems that first exposure to such socio-industrial learning came when the young Leno worked as a Saturday Boy at a local (inevitably 'high-end') European-imported car dealership, seemingly dedicated to: Mercedes, Volvo, SAAB, BMW, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Citroen and Jaguar. These cars so beloved by the real and aspirant 'Ivy League' set, as well depicted by Dustin Hoffman's Alfa-Romeo Duetto in the film 'The Graduate'. As a Saturday job, this was relative privilege, since most of his counterparts in auto-dealerships and repair shops were limited to the everyday products of Detroit's Big Three.

As such there would have been stories about the customers who bought and owned the incoming cars, themselves amongst both the upper echelon elite and the then small but increasing coterie of New England liberals (teachers, professors, PhD researchers, pyschologists etc). Presumably for a lower middle-class young man questions would abound: “who were they?”, “what they did they do?”, and “how important were they”. Inevitably then an 'in the field' study of a thin but rich slice of a rarefied auto-culture.

His natural curiosity for 'conceptual deconstruction' of the world around him is illustrated by his college course choice in Speech Therapy, this choice presumably influenced by his own formative problems in reading and writing (self stated as dyslexic). But that mindset – very probably together with the need to 'battle harder' in the world to overcome the limitation of dyslexia, and the inevitable social slights against Italians – provided the same 'deconstructive' investigative perspective to his growing fascination of automobiles, and thereafter the broader auto-industry.

The result of those early years of cars and people, and nigh on fifty years as a comedy-driven social deconstructionist has resulted in the public offering of Jay Leno's Garage.

A series whereby, although some conversational 'fall-back' repetition is inevitable so as to inject life into the subject, he is seemingly able to remember the minutia of detail about not only his own plethora of vehicles, but because of absorbed broad interest, also regards his guest's vehicles. This because whilst separate from the hands on work of vehicle restoration (fulfilling other 'celebrity' roles and admittedly not adept at mechanics, bodywork or electricals) he takes great interest in the detail of the repair and renovation works; as seen when describing the schedule of works for each of his own and other restoration projects, from even years ago.

No doubt this skill has grown from the need for contextual and specific recall from the early days of comedy performances (the stand-up routine plus theatre location/dates), and thereafter in TV the need to inevitably speed-read his guests' PR resum├ęs or details of their latest film, TV series, achievements etc, to ensure the on-screen conversation naturally flowed.

[NB Observation, lateral thinking and cross-contextualisation, much else....and timing....have been the cornerstones of intelligent comedy for decades, which given direct injection into people's minds has thus influenced western and now global society's humoristic speech formulae. In most circumstances humour provides 'social glue' and enables the ability to become a 'people person', which Leno has seemingly genuinely thrived upon.

(Though any decent person should always be aware of the disingenuous social 'schmoozers' who simply wish to make social connections to use others abilities or resources to their own advantage, this trend an unfortunate pandemic in the modern societal construct)].

In past episodes of 'JLG' it was noticeable that Leno would periodically appear momentarily disinterested in his guest whilst looking over a car. Whilst appearing rude (and so should obviously be self-recognised and overcome) the action obviously did not stem from the intentional rudeness. Instead, inevitably for people who have deep knowledge of a subject (and especially so if that person also has far broader responsibilities than the public might appreciate), there is a natural tendency to appear momentarily remote as his/her mind periodically switches off from overtly typical (and so 'regurgitated' conversation) to momentarily mentally attends to other matters of importance.

[NB the fact is that for specialists (and indeed polymaths) with a voracious appetite the 'same old' conversations can become irksome, especially so for 'people persons' who are essentially able to 'pre-read' the other conversational flow].

As a sociologocal aside, it should be noted that such people who have both intellectual and social depth (deconstructivism) and breadth, and so are able to foresee and pre-read what are all too often completely fabricated social situations, artificially presented as naturalistic to gain certain outcomes. Such people may become socially remote because of the agenda riven, dishonest, intercourse of others.

Herein, given his position, Leno has done very well to not to become a modern day Howard Hughes].

He has arrived at this broad knowledge thanks to a lifetime of indepth automotive interest, his increasing interaction fuelled by celebrity and wealth, but vitally aided by effectively professional research to enable the writing of various automotive magazine columns before the creation of his Garage, from Classis Car Magazine to Popular Mechanics. But it must be remembered that memory is only served well when prompted by enthusiasm.

And it is here that Leno excels.

As a “centre of the road”, “non-blue” and “non-alternative” comedian he operated in the great comedy tradition of something for all. The ability to impressively stand in that centre-ground meant he could reach a broad audience, trusted in front of children and grandparents alike; and hence his rise as host of 'The Tonight Show' at the age of 42, staying in situ for essentially 21 years.

His domestic and international audience reach obviously enormous by his departure. The next step was to take cultural reach and grasp and direct it toward the realm of all things automotive and mechanical, with obvious focus on cars.

Jay Leno's Garage has been broadcast in youtube video and now TV format for a decade, thus having to balance his efforts over both his 'evening shift' with the internal and external demands of JLG since 2014.

The vlog and programme has now become an evolved pillar of American auto-culture, spanning not just conversation and drives about specific weekly vehicle models, but itself a platform to exemplify and promote both the expansive world of motorised mobility (from military to the eccentric) and the newly emerged 'underling' US-centric start-ups and ventures that have emerged after the Great Financial Crisis in 2008. Leno views JLG as a publicly orientated 'output shaft' for the new engine of American enterprise.

The point to be made here is that because of fame and fortune he was able to fully indulge his automotive passions over a long period. But also seemingly recognised, perhaps from his origins, that unlike the transient and tempestuous world of Hollywood entertainment which sees people as little more than money-making products, the true heart of America had been built from the fundamentals of agriculture, industry, trade, retail, idealised consumerism, repair and replacement.

But whilst the movie and TV moguls of Hollywood were busy consistently generating and re-generating the 'American Dream', it relied upon the 'Average Joe' throughout America's economic rise that actually built the country, a country which Leno's grandfather (and many like him) viewed as the New World Utopia, when Old Europe was quickly fragmenting because of its own economic and power struggles.

Leno came from Middle America and to this day recognises the importance of Middle America – especially now given its massively shrunken demographic. It was the social construction of Middle America that made the country great, not the Wall Street boys, the Madison Avenue 'Mad Men' nor the Hollywood moguls and superstars; even if these groups seemingly embody the American Spirit and Dream, because of their proximity to capitalism.

Thus because of his roots and the Hollywood machine, Leno is a 'cultural-conduit', who having made his own historical mark in entertainment's 'hall of fame', seemingly now wishes to make a much deeper cultural impact across the broad fields of the American automotive arena.

As to whether the creation of the impressive collection and the subject platform of the show was truly autonomously evolved by Leno, or by external 'guidance' of the 'Hollywood machine', itself plugged into American soft-power efforts, is impossible to tell. But presumably its results from a meeting of both personal and national aims.

There are numerous other car collections across the USA, ranging from the Peterson Collection of 1920s and 1930s French 'couture' exotica, to the various dedication centres to the renowned drivers of yesteryear at the Indianapolis' 'Brick Yard', to the more recent past with Richard Petty and AJ Foyt NASCAR museums, and to the many 'Car is the Star' collections of TV and film vehicles, but JLG's remit appears to be to try and encapsulate the a breadth not seen before in the USA.

Typically most collections tend to be relatively focused and narrow, understandably so given direct relevant to the specific subject.

The only exceptions being rapidly declining state run collections which had a social remit to present the past, so presenting n often erratic broad range of vehicle types, with recognised focus on those local companies of the lost past.

However, since the 1980s these state-run enterprises have increasingly seen decline as the once healthy budgets of local municipals in the 1950s to the early 1990s shrank accordingly, so unable to retain visitor interest through the purchase new exhibits and stylistic refurbishment. This most prevalent in the 'Rust Belt' regions as local industry, commerce and so people disappeared, and wherein so much local and national history had previously been made. Hence the state owned collections were gradually sold-off or necessarily given away to better homes as museums closed.

So whilst the Motor Cities National Heritage Area was created in 1998, so as to generate a new era of culture-based wealth creation linked to Detroit's and Michigan's past, on a broader scale the outcome was that the story regards the socio-economic / industrial-consumer fabric of America has becoming effectively lost.

Hence, ultimately more reliance upon the very few major efforts of the private sector, the most recognised being the legendary Henry Ford Innovation Centre and associated 'Greenfield Village'.

But whilst this locality was once in the very American heartland it had produced and was able to then attract enormous visitor numbers, today this legendary site sits geographically off the beaten tourist path, especially so for the sizeable number of incoming Asian tourists who themselves want to experience the 'American (ie Californian) Dream'.

Thus, it is in a timely manner then that Jay Leno's efforts to fill his vast warehouse garage with all manner of vehicles and ephemera, accrued over the last 40 years or so, has come into being over the last decade, the decade in which the future trans-global importance of the BRIC, CIVETS, and 'Pioneer' nations has become properly recognised, and in which America is having to find its Animal Spirits once again.

In this realm Leno has become the most important 'new steward' regards much of the West's automotive past.

Precisely because of the immense diversity of vehicles collected – these obtained from a myriad of sources (from widows to defunct museums to private treaty sales) and obviously backed by an 'intelligence network' able to locate such items - no other collection appear to have such a diverse and characterful mix, from the 'everyman' spirit (of Chevrolet, Nash) to the aspirational (in Chrysler-Imperial) to the innovative (in Panhard, Citroen) to 'exotica' (of Bugatti, Lamborghini, McLaren) and back to the functional (as per the Lamborghini tractor) to radical 'home-built' specials (like the Shotwell, a mix of Morgan and TATRA layouts) to the limited-run special editions of mass manufactured vehicles (such as the Ford Shogun or the GMC [S-10] Syclone), and the yesteryear 'alternatives' of steam and electric power (with the Double and Baker respectively).

Exactly how 'Jay Leno's Garage' was ultimately formed will remain with Mr Leno and his closest associates, but over the past ten years or so the youtube channel and later TV programme has come to illustrate just how truly in love with the ideology and archetype of the car much of America still truly is.

At one extreme is the mature overtly wealthy car collector who pretends to be an aficionado of his vehicle and marque, even if plainly the case that he is really partakes for symbolic status and investment potential, and who in reality beyond the rhetoric knows little about the vehicle's history or its mechanics....perhaps none worse than some of the wholly self-absorbed egotistical 'Hollywood Set'.

The anti-dote amongst the worst of the wealthy are the less obvious, demure owners, participants and organisers who run the various Concour d'Elegance events and classic car meets all around the USA, Canada and increasingly Mexico and LatAm countries.

At the opposite extreme is the 'dirt-poor' young person to whom a car offers true mobility, independence and so freedom, and is in itself seen as an integral part of an absorbing history. He or she has either self-taught or been passed-down their mechanical knowledge, and has an evident fascination for their vehicle, even if ignorant about the 130 years of preceding motoring history.

That past that spans from the efforts of Cugnot's 'road-steam-ship' to Benz's first proper compact self-propelled car to the Model T Ford to the ambition of post-war Ferrari to Issigonis' Mini and onto the singular focus of today's Koenigsegg; aswell as the plethora of creations on 2,3 and 4 wheels during that journey.

To his eternal credit, Jay Leno purveys the best of both worlds simultaneously, his talks to young American engineers welcomed by college students to see and hear the revered elder statesman. He and his team, from the multi-skilled craftsmen, in the restoration department, the invisible administrators to those in video production, have created a site – physically and digitally - of true significance to the USA given its own resurgence ambition, and vitally enthused millions of people young and old in most corners of the world to appreciate the past and use those lessons to consider the future.

As such,, typically dressed in 'blue-collar' denim, subsumed ego and encyclopeadic knowledge, yet the public persona and connections to influence and so make things happen.

Jay Leno is the consummate 'Auto-Patron'.